London Seeks to Rescue Anti-Smog Plan From Brexit Debate

  • Mayor says EU exit shouldn’t relax rules on air quality
  • Government says pollution remains a priority despite Brexit

London Mayor Sadiq Khan sought to keep pollution on the U.K. political agenda, introducing plans to penalize the dirtiest cars and demanding a say on how the nation will untie itself from the European Union.

Britain has been in breach of EU air quality rules for years and has said it’s unlikely to meet the 2010 standard until at least 2025. Khan, who took office in May after campaigning on green issues, is concerned pollution will slip as a priority as the national government focuses on leaving the bloc following a referendum on the issue on June 23.

Khan said he will “actively intervene” in a new lawsuit brought by an environmental group seeking to force ministers into quicker action. Speaking on the 60th anniversary of the clean air act, brought in after “pea-souper” smogs, Khan said he’s working on a number of measures that will cut down on diesel exhaust fumes across the capital. He urged the national government to help.

“Leaving the EU should not be the first step of us going back to being known as the dirty man of Europe,” Khan said at an event in London on Tuesday. The next government, he said, should “put in place the strongest possible legal protections to ensure the existing legal limits are retained and not undone by Brexit.”

The U.K. has worked to block the EU from tightening its pollution laws, spending about 100,000 pounds ($132,000) unsuccessfully defending itself against environmental group ClientEarth, which sued ministers over their failure to meet legal pollution limits. 

Regulatory Loophole

A loophole in EU pollution standards for diesel cars means many cities, including London, are still engulfed in toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide, despite a 2010 deadline to bring air quality to healthy levels. The U.K.’s exit from the EU means the country would avoid hefty fines from the European Court of Justice, said Alan Andrews, a lawyer for ClientEarth.

EU limits already are falling behind the World Health Organization’s recommended guidelines, said James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth. He urged the U.K. to use it independence to improve its air quality laws beyond levels in the EU.

“There were a lot of people for Brexit who kept saying we can do better,” Thornton said. “The clean air law is one that we can do. What we need is some visionary politicians like the mayor after Brexit to ensure our environmental health continues to be protected.”

Government Response

A spokeswoman for the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said air quality was a priority for the government. “We welcome the Mayor of London’s commitment to improving air quality in the capital and Ministers will be meeting with him shortly to discuss how we can work together,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

Khan’s main proposal is dubbed “T-Charge,” which would apply a fee of 10 pounds on the most polluting vehicles entering central London. He’s also seeking to extend the city’s planned “Ultra-Low Emission Zone” to include the North and South Circular roads. He also proposed:

  • Extending the Ultra-Low Emission Zone beyond the city center in 2020
  • Starting the zone in central London in 2019, a year earlier than planned
  • Introducing cleaner buses on the most polluted routes
  • Developing a national program for scrapping diesel vehicles
  • Requiring all double-decker buses to comply with the low-emissions zone by 2019, a year earlier than planned

London suffers some of the worst pollution in Europe, causing almost 10,000 premature deaths a year, according to research by the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London. Environmental groups praised Khan’s program.

“Sadiq Khan is taking bold action to clean up after the car industry who have got away with polluting our cities for far too long,” said Greenpeace campaigner Anna Jones, in a statement. “We now need the U.K. government to take their share of responsibility and force carmakers to clean up their act.”

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